Into The Woods

In college, whenever I was feeling overwhelmed or just despondent, I would go to the beach, turn off my brain, and then slowly restart. Some people might call this meditating, but I called it my reset button. I just went into nature all by myself, stared at the waves, and then moved forward. It helped me prioritize, helped me put things in perspective.

Now my reset button is a little different. My fiancé and I took up backpacking a few years ago and each successive jaunt into the wilderness resets my life in ways I can’t quite process until it’s over.

Backpacking breaks my life down to it’s core. Every decision is based on where we’ll find water, if we’ll be warm enough, have enough food, be able to sleep. I could spend thirty minutes trying to get a fire started in the rain because at that moment that's the only thing that I care about - Warmth. I perceive more in the woods, the light, the rain, the tracks of deer, coyote, bear. Everything we need is strapped to our backs. Life is survival, and there’s freedom in that. 

Coming home from four days in the wilderness is a relief but it’s also overwhelming. Suddenly water comes out of my kitchen faucet, and I have to unload the dishwasher. E-mails have piled up, people need favors, want me to respond, act, go out. Life avalanches in on us. Life is once again full of lists and tasks, brief conversations about what to do now that the cat is in heat, which insulation is best for our climate, googling solutions to every problem. 

I don’t feel shackled to life, exactly, but I can’t help but feel like hiking fifteen miles a day to find the nearest running creek was a simpler existence. Identifying bear prints, markings, and scat, before finally running across a bear on the trail was a more satisfying experience. Pushing my body towards something, water, miles, a camp site, felt pure. It was cold, sure. Yeah, it hailed on us, but huddled around a camp fire, drinking wine we’d lugged almost twenty miles, that’s the sort of accomplishment that modern life, in all it’s incredible luxuries, just can’t offer.

Here I can write. Here I can be creative, and spontaneous. As we speak a heater is warming my toes, I am simultaneously editing my book and ordering groceries via Instacart. Amazon packages are delivered to my doorstep, and twenty feet away, my phone is alerting me of their arrival. I am cleaner than I’ve been in days, my clothes don’t smell like smoke, and all things considered I’m at peace. The luxuries a twenty first century life affords lets me be a writer, lets me answer any whim of a question in a moment, gives me the freedom to read and the spare time to wonder. But it’s not everything. Being comfortable isn’t everything.

Sometimes you need to turn it all off, and just let your brain be primitive for a moment. When you only care about water, food and sleep, the lists, the people, the wants just disappear.

That’s why I go into the woods. To let my brain take a break. Let her sit back and just survive. Then slowly, like a sunrise, let her reboot into modernity.

 

C. L. Brenton

Readers vs. Writers

If you're anything like me, you have someone you're constantly writing for. Your first reader, your muse, the only person who truly understands you.

For me, that person is my fiancé. He has read everything I've written. He's laughed, he's cried, he's applauded my accomplishments, and taken apostrophes out of more it's than I care to mention. In the beginning it was hard for me to give him any of my work without meticulously pouring through it. I would make sure it was the best it could be so he would only be able to say this is great! Even though he never did (there are always improvements) nor would I truly want him to (because how else would I get any better) I still strove for perfection before handing any manuscript off. 

This is as it should be.

As I've become more comfortable with him reading my work, I've become looser about giving him work-in-progress pieces. I've been churning out so many stories in such a short time, that I'll rush a piece to him just so he can look at it before he goes to work. I depend so much on his opinion that I have come to believe that the faster I get his edits, the faster I'll be done with the story.

The opposite has proven to be true. 

When I get his opinion too early in my process his words get clogged up in mine. I can't see the piece I wrote anymore, I see the piece he wants me to write. I lose my vision, I get caught up in grammar, the spelling, the notes, I get lost along the way.

Writing is a solitary endeavor for a reason. A story can live in your head, boil over and over for years, and you won't know what it all means until you get it out on paper. Even then, it takes draft upon draft to notice the idiosyncrasies, the themes, the delicate undertones you're trying to express. The writer weaves, the reader unravels. 

If the work is not tight to begin with, the reader will pull at its loose threads and tear it apart.

When you hand a reader a manuscript and tell them to edit it, they always will. Even if it's Moby Dick, or The Bell Jar, or A Prodigal Summer. Hand a reader a novel that's bound and published, and say here's my story, chances are, they'll have nothing to say.

Opinions fly at the writer from all directions, and it's the writer's job to decide which ones to consider. Ultimately you have to be content with the piece before it's shared. If you bring another person in too soon, their opinions, good or bad, will hinder your process.

Be true to the story, and satisfy your own eye first. Tighten and rework until your story is perfect. Then and only then should your first reader be allowed to take a peek.

 

C. L. Brenton

Project Runway and Creativity

I've been watching a lot of Project Runway recently - (all of the old seasons are on Hulu) and I've found my work has been more prolific than usual. I'm busting out poems, short stories and articles daily (mostly to fill up my published work page) and I've started thinking about why.

Sure, I'm a highly motivated person and I love (capital L) writing. But what could possibly be so unique about this fashion design reality show that's got me so inspired? 

Project Runway is not a show about fashion exactly. It's a show about creativity - forced creativity at that. It's about harnessing the muse within you and forcing her to work. It's about editing, it's about taking risks, it's about taste, and originality and time constraints, all of which mirror the work of a writer. 

I have found myself an hour from a deadline telling myself to "make it work" or giving myself a runway critique in Nina's exhausted drawl, "I don't understand why you would use that verb, no woman would be caught dead in that verb!" Tim tells me to "edit, edit, edit," and "work, work, work." Don't overdesign turns into don't overwrite, and find your inspiration helps me do just that. 

Any advice the judges give the designers could easily be substituted into advice for a writer. Writing, just like any other art, is about contrast, mixing hard and soft, light and dark. We are successful if we produce the unexpected, find our voice, polish our work, and most importantly, find out who we are as a writer. 

"What do you want to say?" Tim and the judges always ask the designers. "What is this saying?"

A question writers may have more cause to ask themselves.

If you find yourself stuck in any creative endeavor take a break and watch an episode of Project Runway while you fold your laundry. If you pay attention, you might have your own make it work moment.

 

C. L. Brenton

Query Query Querying

Writing a query letter is a science and an art. But really, it's way more science. Boiling an entire novel down into a few sentences can be nightmarish at best, and editing those sentences with an outsiders point of view (one who doesn't know that the race of evil creatures in your book are called urgles and their king is just a costumed human imposter) is even harder.

Cue agentqueryconnect.com - the most helpful resource I've run into for workshopping the never ending Query plight. It's a simple site. People post their queries, their synopses, and the first 150 words of their novel (all in different forums) and other novelists (just like you) take a crack at editing them. The more you edit, the more you get reviewed. It is that simple, and that helpful!

If you have written, are writing, or even thinking about writing a novel, I implore you to check out this awesome online space. I've never seen anything more useful for a burgeoning writer online.

Feedback. It is invaluable!

 

C. L. Brenton